What the Dead Taught Me

Maturing in the age of AIDS

Growing up in a small town in Central Pennsylvania, I didn’t know too many people who talked about AIDS openly. The disease, in many ways, was treated as some sort of distant reality that only seemed to affect the eccentrics, the promiscuous and — yes — the gays. It was a New York disease. It was a San Francisco phenomenon — or so everyone wanted us to believe. It was easier that way. It was a lot less scary depending on your zip code and willingness to live in unadulterated denial. The ’80s made it easy with all that Day-Glo and pop music.

So much for that.

As a young woman who had dreams of moving to the big city to become an artist and writer — and to rub elbows with all these “eccentrics” I kept hearing about — the ones who were making the most provocative works and making the grandest statements in the pop culture menagerie that was the 1980s and early ’90s — I relied on a pantheon of heroes to help shape my cultural acumen and sensibilities as a creative. And as I witnessed so many of my heroes pass away in their prime – it became clear to me just what sort of impact AIDS was having on the world. You didn’t have to live in New York, San Francisco or Philadelphia to be dumbstruck by this something – this very, very bad thing that was happening. And you mean it would only get worse?

As I pored through the pages of the Village Voice, The New York Times and even Rolling Stone magazine (they had compelling coverage of the disease back then) it gave me more than pause to see obituary after obituary of so many artists, actors and performers I admired who were fast becoming statistics. There was Michael Bennett and Peter Allen, Keith Haring and Rock Hudson, who even seemed to catch the attention of the older folks in the household who finally seemed to “get” just what was happening here — but with no shortage of judgment that somehow forgave Ryan White but condemned Robert Mapplethorpe.

All the people who shape our world and who make it beautiful were leaving us. Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? They were legends. Simply gone.

At a time when a young person is only beginning to realize her own sexual self, the impact was staggering. How could any of us be safe if so many people who have shaped our culture were disappearing before the footlights were dark and the paint even dried?

Obviously there were communities of people assembling all over the country asking these same startling questions (hey kids, this was before we had the Internet) but for a young person like me who didn’t even have a driver’s license yet — and with wide eyes and starry notions — the word “AIDS” was about the most frightening thing I had ever heard. It became impossible to look at a new work or listen to a new song without wondering who’s the next to go.

Of course, compared to the stories I would later be told as an adult by those who have lived through these early, very volatile days of AIDS and who continue to live healthy, happy HIV-positive lives, my youthful realization about art, life and sex were quite innocent and even a little foolish back then. But just as so many of these heroes of mine seemed to teach me about art as I painstakingly read their words, studied their works and sang along to their songbooks, so did they teach me about self preservation, activism and immortality in a way that was unlike anything I had experienced in my small town life.

People lived and died — it was a lesson I already knew quite well. But what happens when they become casualties to a different sort of war? We had heard about cancer and feared it. We had heard about heart failure and thought a bit less about that since we were so young. But AIDS — it was something else entirely. It was being called everything from a plague to a punishment. But for what? And what do we do with the time we have?

None of these cultural figureheads had to know the kid who decorated her bedroom to look like Sardi’s. They didn’t ever have to have a single conversation with me about it. It was all in their work. It spoke loudly. And, I realized, it wasn’t going away even if they did.

Today, looking back on this 30 years of AIDS, I think about how my generation – as well as those who have followed – have not really known a world without the disease. We grew up hearing about safe sex. We watched movies and TV shows in which AIDS became a central character. There was Life Goes On, The Real World and all those after-school specials.

Along the way, we even befriended people who were HIV-positive. We listened to the rhetoric, saw the debates and had come to almost accept AIDS as a given. It’s here to stay, we figured. Now what?

And there’s a danger in that, especially when you consider that more young people than ever seem to be embracing the message that since AIDS drugs work so well — why bother worrying about infection? Why bother forsaking fun? If for every generation there’s a gap, the one here lies in apathy.

But so I don’t ever forget, get lazy or somehow think that this disease isn’t still an epidemic that needs our attention, I thank people like Cookie Mueller and Larry Kramer, Michael Callen, Bobbi Campbell, Alison Gertz, Derek Karman, Pedro Zamora, Tom Waddell, Vito Russo, Randy Shilts, Herb Ritts, Jerry Herman and all those people — living and dead — who have been a part of the past three decades of loss, change and inevitably — hope — that not only do things get better, but they can get great.